Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Corporate Feminism

Conferences for ambitious career women are a booming industry; insiders interviewed by Christine Haughney and Leslie Kaufman say the number of such events has tripled in the past few years. This is the Lean In crowd, women determined to make it to the top, but as women -- a publisher notes that some successful women like Carly Fiorina won't get involved in this stuff because they don't want to be "segregated onto the women's list." These women are happy to be on the women's list, as long as it is a list of winners.

One interesting detail about this group of women is that many are proud to call themselves feminists. Barnard College president Deborah Spar says
We are having a moment. . . . Young women are identifying as feminist at levels and in ways that haven’t been seen since the 1970s. And these are young women who grew up saying feminism wasn’t for them, but for a range of strange reasons have come to identify with.
Which makes me a little queasy. Not that I begrudge these women success -- if that's what they want, I hope they find it, and I certainly wouldn't want sexism to stand in their way. But missing from their approach is any sense that feminism might lead to a re-evaluation of our priorities. These women have fully adopted the model of success pioneered by upper middle class men in the modern era, climbing the career ladder to the corner office. Feminism was once allied with socialism, abolition, temperance, and other radical causes; in my youth there were lots of environmental thinkers who wanted feminism to mean a less exploitative relationship with mother earth. Now it seems to mean that women can be corporate pawns just like men, and let their thoughts and dreams be taken over fully by advertising agents and the promoters of slick conferences for the networking crowd. One of the dominant trends in the modern world is the transformation of human life into a system of careers and career networks where the most determined players of the corporate game rise to the top; join this to ever-increasing inequality and you get a world in which most of the sweet rewards go to the most avid seekers of success.

Is that the best we can do? Freeing women from the second-class status they have endured for 5,000 years was supposed to be transformative; it was supposed to enrich our world with new insights and new ways of being. Instead it seems to mean we all share the same muddled lives, regardless of sex -- the same jobs in suburban office parks, the same worries about getting ahead, the same burden of trying to balance children, marriage, career, housework, and everything else. At least, I suppose, we are sharing the muddle in a more equal way.


David said...

I for one would be glad were feminism to lose much of the utopian extremism that turned so many people off in the eighties. In those days, we were told that, to men, liberated women were essentially space aliens, who eventually would free us from things like subject-verb-object grammar, laws, science, all categories, and all logic. Personally, I'm not much of an adherent of corporate get-ahead values, but, as you say, for those who are, let them find their brilliant career. But I'm not nostalgic for feminist or any other form of utopianism.

John said...

Socialism is dead, anarchism is crazy, feminism has been captured by capitalism, religion seems to be fading -- does that leave us with no alternatives to things going on as they are?

David said...

I hope it means that, when we find an alternative, it won't be a grandiose, utopian one.

pootrsox said...

Given the way the world *is*, bringing feminism to the career paths of women is not a bad thing.

If one must compete in that world or work for minimum wages, I'd much rather see the competition based on feminist values than on the old, tired ones that men have imposed on careers for generations.

John said...

I agree that given our capitalist, meritocratic world, the reduction of sexism and racism over the past 70 years is a huge advance. I makes me philosophically sad because it seems that the octopus of meritocratic capitalism is able to swallow everything and turn it into the pursuit of gain: feminism becomes female careerism, outsider art gets packaged for sale as "Outsider Art," Environmentalism spawns new lines of rugged-looking clothes, etc. Is there any perspective outside the system from which it might be possible to change it? The only real alternative seems to be religious fanaticism, which for me is the same as no alternative at all.

David said...

Speaking for myself, it doesn't especially bother me that capitalism is able to turn other movements to its own marketing purposes. It may not be edifying that capitalists have turned environmentalism into clothing lines, but I don't find it morally upsetting. To me, that's just people trying to earn a living.

What is more disturbing are the attempts of some to turn capitalism into its own form of revolutionary utopianism, with the idea that virtually every sphere of human life should be run according to entrepreneurial model, with attendant messianic rhetoric about "disruption" and other such hero-fetishing, sadomasochistic Ayn-Randian nonsense. This stuff too will pass, but it insist on making a lot of us miserable before it slinks off.

David said...

Reading over my last post, I grow more and more convinced about the value of proofreading.

Also, the more I think about it, the more I think that this utopian capitalism is where one should look if one wants to find a revolutionary impulse in the contemporary world. For one thing, like a lot of revolutionary movements, they've started to try to one-up each other in purity, fanaticism, and the misguided obsession with logical consistency--if you agree even once to compromise on shutting down the government, you're expelled from the Ayn Rand Jacobin Club.

John said...

I'm not really bothered by rugged clothes, either; love my Patagonia jacket. But it seems to me that to oppose things like the intrusion of market fundamentalism, "disruption" and so on into places like universities, we need other values we can use to justify our opposition. I think all the troubles of our educational system trace back to our not having any clear sense of what education is for.

I have some vague ideas about things I care about other than "success": understanding as a value in its own right; the value of autonomous human minds pursuing their own interests; beauty; continuity; connections to other people. But I find it hard to articulate my sense of other values in ways clear enough, and practical (non-utopian) enough, to oppose the march of careerist techno-meritocratic capitalism.

David said...

Do we really need clear, articulable values to oppose the revolutionaries? How about some good old Burkean why-bother conservatism?

Perhaps more to the point, I suspect that, even if we could concoct a set of clear values to beat the disruption types up with, those values would serve no useful purpose beyond that. Like reason itself, "clear values" it seems to me evolve mainly for the purpose of winning arguments. They rarely guide action, and when used as such, they tend to become rigid and counterproductive.